Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

Sheherbano Taseer (Credit:

I first became aware of Pakistan’s blasphemy law soon before I turned 18. It was 1991, and although less than three years had passed since a plane explosion killed General Zia and subsequent elections brought Benazir Bhutto to power, the optimism which surrounded those events had already largely dissipated.

Benazir’s ineffectual government had lasted less than two years before being dismissed on corruption charges, and Zia’s protégé Nawaz Sharif was the new prime minister. If Benazir lacked the political power and nerve to overturn any of the repressive laws which Zia had introduced or strengthened in the name of Islam, Nawaz lacked the inclination to do so. The coalition of parties which he headed – the Islamic Democratic Alliance – had, from the outset, knowingly positioned itself against Benazir’s secular, female-led Pakistan People’s Party.

So it wasn’t surprising, but it was sickening, when Sharif’s government went along with the Federal Shariat Court’s ruling of October 1990, stating that an existing law which permitted life imprisonment rather than death to those found guilty of blasphemy was repugnant to Islam. “The penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet … is death” the court plainly declared, and the government drew up a bill to bring the law into accordance with this ruling.

The blasphemy law, as it’s come to be known, had been around in a milder form long before the Federal Shariat Court’s ruling. In 1947, when the new nation of Pakistan adopted the Indian penal code (drawn up by the British), it included Section 295-A, which ran as follows: “Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of Pakistan by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”

For the first few decades of Pakistan’s existence, 295-A was scarcely ever invoked, but when General Zia came to power following a military coup and decided the best way to circumnavigate the absence of a popular mandate was to claim the role of religious saviour, everything changed in the relationship between religion and state.

“Islamisation” became the word of the hour – or rather, of the decade that followed Zia’s usurpation of power. All political parties were banned, their leaders imprisoned if they weren’t in exile, except for the right-wing religious party, the Jamaat-e-Islami; advancement in the army and government became tied to a willingness to espouse Zia’s Islam; school curriculums were “Islamised” – which meant science fell out of favour, religious instruction was raised above all other subjects and the heroes of Pakistan’s history were men who killed (usually Hindus and Sikhs) in the name of religion. It’s worth noting that everyone in Pakistan today under the age of 40 who attended government schools (which is most of the school-going population) would have had Zia’s curriculum and world view pressed into their brains from a very early age.

At the private school I attended, where we followed the ‘O’-level syllabus and used English language texts published outside Pakistan, I grew up learning an entirely different version of the world. Our history lessons covered the ancient world, medieval Europe, a patchwork of Indian history from the Aryan invasions to the rise of Buddhism to the Mughals, through the British Empire to the creation of Pakistan. Islamic lessons – known, to the great amusement of my parents, as RI (religious instruction) – weren’t given any great prominence, but at the same time all students knew that RI was the one lesson where you couldn’t question anything.

Where did this attitude come from? I didn’t learn it from my home life, I know; was it merely the atmosphere of Zia’s Pakistan seeping through or had religion always been sealed in a protected bubble, except in the most radical circles? That’s a question which requires more space to discuss – for the moment, suffice it to say that by the mid-80s an extremist version of Islam had not only been codified in law but had made its way into daily life. Moreover, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and India’s acts of brutality against the largely Muslim population of the Kashmir Valley provided seemingly endless opportunities for pro-jihad propaganda. And then, of course, there was Saudi Arabia, delighted with the Wahabbism of Pakistan’s new head of state and only too happy to spend its petrodollars funding Wahabbi mosques and madrassas in Zia’s beleaguered nation.

All this is necessary to understand the atmosphere in which Zia widened the scope of the blasphemy laws, most notably with the addition of a new section 295-C: “Use of derogatory remarks, etc. in respect of the Holy Prophet. Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

From the first, the new and expanded blasphemy laws were used as tools of persecution, used not only against non-Muslims but also against Muslims belonging to minority sects (who were viewed by the Wahabbis as being as bad as, if not worse, than non-Muslims). In an entirely skin-crawling manner, the newly fanged laws made perfect sense for Zia’s rule – if you’re going to claim that your authority stems from your role as champion of Islam, then you have to show yourself zealous in finding and punishing those who offend Islam, both at home and abroad. I have to confess that I don’t recall any conversations around the blasphemy laws in Zia’s days. Perhaps this is because there was so much else to froth at the mouth about around his Islamisation policy. Or because I was 13 at the time.

But I remember very clearly the terrifying period four years later, in the newly democratic Pakistan, when Nawaz Sharif’s government did something which Zia’s government had considered and rejected: impose a mandatory death sentence in blasphemy cases. Every hope that the end of Zia would see a reversal of his Islamisation policies died right there and the number of cases registered under 295-C kept on rising. Most of those who were accused, particularly in the early days, were non-Muslims or Ahmediyyas (a group who refer to themselves as Muslim but have been declared non-Muslim by the Pakistan state and are subject to vicious persecution).

But the case which most struck me was that of Akhtar Hameed Khan – a development activist, and one of the great heroes of Pakistan, and in particular of my home city of Karachi. I always heard his name uttered with admiration in my household, so it was chilling to pick up the newspaper one morning and find him accused of blasphemy, and even more chilling to hear the offending words were in a poem for children that ‘could be read’ as blasphemous if you chose to interpret them in a particular way. In the end, he escaped conviction (as he did on the other two occasions when he was accused under the blasphemy law), but the incident was enough to make it clear to me that the law could be used against any writer who strayed from orthodoxy.

In Benazir’s second term in office, her government made some attempts to amend the blasphemy law to decrease its abuse by those seeking to persecute minorities or settle private scores. Her law minister Iqbal Haider later said he had won the agreement of other parties including the hardline religious Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) for making those amendments; but as soon as a newspaper erroneously reported that the government was planning to repeal the blasphemy laws, there were mass demonstrations by religious groups, which so intimidated the government that Iqbal Haider quickly declared support for the laws and dropped all talk of amendments.

It was around this time, while at university, that I first encountered the term “Kafkaesque”. It seemed designed for the blasphemy laws: if one person had said something blasphemous, their words could not be repeated, not even to a policeman or in a court of law, because voicing the blasphemous words would itself be an act of blasphemy, and so the accuser would become the accused. Those charged under the blasphemy law were immediately imprisoned and placed in solitary confinement, awaiting trial, for their own protection; failure by the police to do so, the logic went, left open the possibility that the accused would be killed either by their neighbours (if they weren’t imprisoned) or by other inmates (if they were imprisoned) because passions run so high over blasphemy charges.

The only ray of light in all this was the refusal by the Supreme Court to uphold a single guilty plea in all the blasphemy cases that came before it, though in reality this could mean that an accused person could be in solitary confinement for years and years while the case worked its way through the judicial system. The judges themselves were not immune to pressure: in 1997, Arif Iqbal Bhatti, a High Court judge, was assassinated after finding three men not guilty of blasphemy.

At a certain point, it started to seem impossible to imagine anything would change. Attempts to merely modify the law had failed – President Musharraf had been the latest head of state to suggest the possibility, only to backpedal furiously in the face of pressure from the religious right.The growing feeling in Pakistan that Islam was a religion under threat in the world meant that there was even less likelihood than before of anyone mounting a challenge to the status quo.

Into this situation strode Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab (the most powerful province in Pakistan). In an entirely unprecedented move, he went with his wife to visit a Christian woman in prison, Aasia Bibi, who had been in solitary confinement for over a year after an altercation with a group of Muslim women, who had refused to drink from the same glass of water as her because they considered her “untouchable”. These women later claimed Aasia Bibi had spoken blasphemous words in the course of the fight, and she was taken away to solitary confinement and later found guilty by the lower court.

Salman Taseer promised that Aasia Bibi would receive a presidential pardon. He also called the blasphemy law “a black law” and pointed out that it was man-made, not God-made. President Zardari, whose backing Taseer claimed to have, started to dither. No presidential pardon was immediately forthcoming, and the judiciary (already at loggerheads with Zardari for entirely separate reasons) ruled that he had no right to grant a presidential pardon until the appeals process was exhausted.

While Taseer continued to rail against the blasphemy law his own party deserted both him and Sherry Rehman, the already out-of-favour minister who had tabled a bill to amend the laws. The law minister, Babar Awan, insisted there was no possibility of changing the laws, and the interior minister Rehman Malik went one better and said that he would personally kill anyone who blasphemed. The rightwing press – who make Fox News look left-wing by comparison – applauded this stance and condemned Taseer.

“I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing” Taseer tweeted on 31 December. Four days later he was dead, gunned down by one of his own security guards, who said he did it because of Taseer’s stand on the blasphemy law. For this, the murderer has become a hero in large parts of Pakistan – when he arrived in court to be arraigned, lawyers threw rose petals at him. Near the same time, Taseer’s sons were throwing rose petals on their father’s grave. Absent from the grave site was the head of Taseer’s party, and the country’s president, Asif Ali Zardari. It was clear that, rather than doing the only decent thing and repealing the blasphemy law in honour of Taseer’s memory, the government wanted to put as much distance as possible between itself and the memory of the bravest man in its party.

It was left to Chaudhury Shujaat Hussain, a conservative politician from the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid), to say that amendments were needed to prevent abuse of the blasphemy law. At the time, this seemed the best anyone could hope for – not to touch the law itself, but to make it very difficult for anyone to register an accusation of blasphemy against someone else. But even the faint hope of such procedural changes dimmed as the weeks went by. On 30 January, Hussain’s political party and other centre-right parties joined the right-wing religious groups in a massive rally demanding that the blasphemy laws remain untouched. The head of the JUI (F) publicly declared that the newly appointed governor of the Punjab should visit Taseer’s assassin in prison – just as Taseer had visited Aasia Bibi.

A few days after this, Prime Minister Gilani announced that Sherry Rehman had agreed to withdraw her ‘private member’s bill’ calling for amendments to the law, in keeping with the PPP’s policy of leaving the law untouched. Politically isolated and under threat from extremists, Rehman – who weeks earlier had seen a 25,000 person strong rally march through her hometown of Karachi declaring her an enemy of Islam – said she would stand by her party’s decision.

Through all this, the newspapers continued to carry stories of people charged under the blasphemy law, including a schoolboy who was reported to the authorities by an examination board for allegedly blasphemous remarks he had written on an examination paper. At the beginning of March, Pakistan’s minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated and the Taliban claimed responsibility. He was a Christian and the only non-Muslim in the cabinet. In January, Bhatti had told AFP: “During the Aasia Bibi case, I constantly received death threats. Since the assassination of Salman Taseer … these messages are coming to me even publicly. The government should register cases against all those using hate speech”. The Kafkaesque nightmare continues.


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